The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations have fallen into four categories: near-masterworks (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands), rather good films (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd), an interesting failure (Sleepy Hollow) and an outright disaster (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Alas, their latest, Dark Shadows, falls firmly into the fourth slot, and is indeed such a misfire it’s a puzzle why it was even made at all. Certainly the television series it’s based on was no classic (although some may argue the point), but this feature adaptation is a tedious and unsatisfying mixture of mawkish camp and Burton’s trademark “weirdness,” which — in this case — isn’t weird enough.
It begins promisingly with an 18th-century prologue in which Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) describes how he’d become a vampire by spurning the affections of a household servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who also happened to be a vengeful witch. Cursing him to immortality, she orders him buried in a silver-chained coffin where he lies trapped for nearly 200 years before being unearthed by a crew constructing a McDonald’s restaurant in 1972.
Barnabas makes his way back to Collinwood, his familial estate, and meets the current generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer), her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also in residence is Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), the handyman/butler/caretaker, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a psychiatrist who’d been hired to treat the disturbed David after the tragic disappearance of his mother a few years earlier. A new arrival is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) David’s new nanny, who instantly transfixes Barnabas as she is identical in appearance to Josette, the young woman whose love had cost him his humanity two hundred years before.
The Collins family is impoverished and Collinwood has fallen into ruin, but Barnabas tells Elizabeth that he can rebuild the family’s cannery business — and its fortunes — in exchange for allowing him to remain at the mansion (and remain close to Victoria). The immortal Angelique is still kicking around town, running a competing cannery, and she comes charging back into their lives for vengeance when she learns of her old flame’s resurrection.
Once this not-so-original plot is set in motion, desperation sets in pretty quickly, and most of the blame must be laid at the feet of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who provided the story along with John August. Smith is the author of the bestselling mashup novel “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” whose upcoming film version was produced by Burton, and it throws into doubt just how good that film is going to be, given the creatively bereft nature of this one.
Lame fish-out-of-water gags are fobbed at the audience as Barnabas misunderstands modern technology (seeing Karen Carpenter performing on television provokes him to shout, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”) while everyone else, puzzlingly, is more taken aback by his antiquated style of dress and manner of speaking than the fact that he is an undead vampire. There are even some truly flat-footed sex gags that are completely out of place in Burton’s universe.
For his part, Burton — who should have known better — has cobbled together a tone-deaf mashup which doesn’t make a lot of sense and is frankly not any fun.
A montage about 30 minutes into the film signals the point at which the writers have run out of ideas and we’re going to be subjected to circuitous tedium for another hour-and-a-half: Barnabas brushing his fangs while the camera makes a circular pan to the mirror, revealing no reflection save the toothbrush — ha ha ha — the senile old maid repeatedly opening a wardrobe without noticing Barnabas sleeping in various positions inside — ha ha ha — the old maid repeatedly making up a bed without noticing Barnabas hanging upside down from the curtains above it — ha ha ha… Like a basketball that’s sprung a leak, Dark Shadows loses its momentum until it’s a sagging mess.
And the cast is wasted. Pfeiffer, who’d demonstrated a lovely flair for comedy in 2007’s Stardust, mostly acts annoyed here (and who wouldn’t?); Moretz’s hip, sullen Carolyn spends most of her time pouting and being hostile to her elders until her awful surprise! character twist; and Miller’s Roger could have been played by virtually anybody. When Carter first roars onto the scene in tacky clothes and copious amounts of awful blue eyeshadow, one’s hopes are temporarily raised that she’s going to channel the series’ original Dr. Hoffman, Grayson Hall, and deliver a big sizzling slice of ham, but unfortunately the griddle’s not hot enough.
Heathcote is okay as Victoria/Josette, but like the others, once her role has been established, it doesn’t have anywhere to go. And Haley, who has specialized in creepy characters since his career reboot as the child molester in 2006’s Little Children, is a puzzling choice to play Willie, whose decrepit appearance is at odds with the essentially harmless nature of the wisecracking character.
Green could’ve been so much fun as the lusty and evil-minded Angelique, but she’s let down by the “nyah-ha-ha” superficiality of the role. And Depp, who has been the go-to actor for weird characters for the last 20 years, seems committed to his performance as Barnabas but is similarly hamstrung by the lame script — and a bizarre, smooth-skinned makeup that gives him the appearance of being a wax replica of himself.
Danny Elfman’s riffs on the original score are promising at the beginning, and his constant underscore in the style of ’60s soap operas is fun at first, but once we get the gag, it becomes unnoticeable. The period songs seem to have been chosen simply because they’re of the period. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is played over the opening credits, and it doesn’t make any thematic sense. The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” is performed during the aforementioned horrendous montage and it likewise doesn’t fit.
Some of the art direction — the Liverpool prologue, the establishing shot of Collinwood — is nice, but a lot of it is ridiculous. A nighttime street scene makes the tiny town of Collinsport look more like Greenwich Village, with a populace that appears to be a combination of hip twenty-somethings and old sea salts (including a cameo-ing Christopher Lee). When Barnabas wants to have a ball at the mansion (and yes, there’s an unwelcome series of terrible “ball” jokes), Carolyn convinces him to host a “happening” with a musical performance by Alice Cooper (who Barnabas keeps referring to “Miss Cooper” and “that ugly woman”), and the film lurches into full-on Addams Family/Beetlejuice territory, making it appear that the burg’s denizens, including a scene-making Andy Warhol, are as strange as the residents of the house.
And one wonders what Burton was trying to accomplish with the cinematography. It’s so blown-out and blurry it’s as if he was trying to replicate the look of the primitive two-inch video format that the original show’s producers used in the 1960s.
Certainly, we can expect more Burton/Depp collaborations, and hopefully there will be more good ones, but Dark Shadows is an idea that should have stayed buried in its coffin. Why Burton didn’t stop everything and order rewrites of the horrendous script is beyond comprehension. As it stands, it plays like a bad remake of a Tim Burton movie.